How Germany can drive you crazy

/ Source: BusinessWeek Online

Not long after I began driving lessons, my instructor had a revelation. "You can already drive," he said, exhaling the smoke of yet another cigarette as we puttered along in a Volkswagen Golf equipped with an extra brake on the passenger side. No kidding, I thought. I've had a U.S. driver's license for more than 30 years.

So why, 11 years after moving to Germany, was I starting the same driver's training program as a German teenager, one that involves 40-plus hours of car and classroom instruction and costs $1,200? The answer reveals one of the less attractive aspects of German society. Not the side that's fun-loving and generous, but the side that's pathologically risk-averse and mindlessly bureaucratic, bent on making everything -- putting up a building, starting a new business, buying a house -- so difficult that nothing happens. It's one of the small ways the nation sabotages its own economy.

Germany recognizes only the licenses of 24 U.S. states that have taken the trouble to negotiate a reciprocity agreement. If you come from one of the states that hasn't -- in my case, New York -- you're out of luck. [Ironically, clueless U.S. tourists can drive all they want, but permanent residents, fluent in the language and immersed in the culture, need a license.]

Bad for business
If you don't get a license within three years of moving to Germany [and I didn't], when a somewhat streamlined training and testing process applies, then you face the same arduous rite of passage as a German 18-year-old getting a license for the first time.

I'm not the only one exasperated by this. The American Chamber of Commerce in Germany has been lobbying for years to make it easier for U.S. citizens to drive here. The chamber argues convincingly that the lack of blanket reciprocity discourages U.S. companies from setting up shop here. German auto makers would also sell a lot of cars to thousands of expat Americans, not to mention other non-Europeans whose licenses aren't recognized.

I know many Americans find it inconceivable that somebody could live 10 years without a car. It's a credit to Germany's public transportation system that it's possible. But still, I wanted to drive, so this is what I had to do:

  • Go to an optician and get an eye test.
  • Spend Saturday taking a first-aid course.
  • Attach proof that I had done this, plus passport-size photo, to the official application form.
  • Take a number at the city office that accepts the form and wait to be called.
  • Pay $68, the first of many, many fees.
  • Wait six weeks for the form to be processed. Enroll at a driver's school.
  • Sit on folding chairs in a crowded room with about 50 other pupils -- bored German teenagers and bored older foreigners. And do it seven days in a row for three hours per day.

And then there's the written test. It has 30 questions, selected randomly from a pool of more than 1,000, so I had to memorize everything. What if I was asked the meaning of a scarlet rectangular sign with a white border? [It designates a parking lot with lights that are turned off in the course of the night.] I have yet to meet a German who knows this, yet my ignorance could doom me to a lifetime of public transportation.

Waiting game
I was nervous the day of the test. The other pupils and I had to be at the driving school at 7:15 a.m. We waited about half an hour before the official test-giver arrived. Then we waited another half-hour while he sorted the tests according to some opaque system.

I felt a moment of panic when I got my copy. Though I had spent hours with my CD-ROM study program, some of the questions seemed totally new. What is the speed limit with snow chains? [50 kilometers per hour, I guessed correctly.] Is it forbidden to park where the street changes to cobblestone? [Yes.]

I stood outside in near-freezing weather with the other students while the results were tallied. The school receptionist stuck her head out the door and dismissed those who passed with a friendly wave and summoned those who failed to make another appointment. I thought how humiliating it would be to fail. Then I got a friendly wave. Whew.

On the road
Now I had to pass the road test. By law, I had to spend a minimum of 12 hours in the car with the instructor, plus whatever extra hours he deemed necessary. Considering that he gets more than $45 an hour, the instructor doesn't have much incentive to rush things along. Luckily, my teacher, a veteran already planning retirement to his second home in France, was sympathetic. He kept the hours to a minimum, but even those quickly took on an absurd quality.

O.K., some things I needed to learn, such as German right-of-way rules. But after we had covered that and a few other points, there wasn't much for my instructor to say. We spent long hours cruising country roads, chatting about this and that, or saying nothing at all. I heard a lot of stories about the follies and misadventures of past pupils. Entertaining, but at $45 an hour, pricey.

I finally took my road test -- some four months after I enrolled in driving school. My appointment was at 1 p.m., but it was nearly 4 by the time the tester appeared. The test usually lasts around 45 minutes, and you can fail for an oversight as minor as forgetting to look over your left shoulder before stepping out of the car. Two applicants ride together, doubling the actual time in the car. The instructor also comes along.

Bad example
My co-pupil was a middle-aged man forced to requalify after losing his license for reasons unexplained. He drifted over the center line, followed other cars too closely, and accelerated too quickly out of stop lights -- no way to impress a German bureaucrat.

The tester, noticeably annoyed, decided to put the guy through his paces. He made him drive two separate stretches of autobahn, execute an emergency stop in an empty parking lot, and demonstrate how to legally turn around on a side street. It was an hour before the tester ordered him to pull over, and then it was my turn.

It was uneventful. A half-hour later I parked the car near the driving school. Without a word, the tester reached into his pocket and handed me my license. [That's one good thing about the process: instant gratification if you pass.] But the ordeal wasn't quite over yet. The tester spent another 20 minutes dressing down the other pupil for his bad attitude, while the instructor and I sat in embarrassed silence. Then, to my amazement, the tester passed the other pupil, too.

Old reliable
I decided to celebrate my newfound mobility by renting a BMW sedan for the weekend. At the rental counter I proudly handed the agent my license, a shiny pink and green card imprinted with the European Union flag and festooned with holograms to prevent counterfeiting. The agent squinted at the license.

"I can't rent you a car," he said. "You've only had a license for two days." I handed him my New York license. He accepted it. I drove away.